UK agency had warning of flooding in Pakistan

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The Independent Online

The impact of devastating floods that tore through Pakistan last summer affecting more than 20m people and leaving more than 1,500 dead, could have been greatly reduced if information gathered by weather monitors in Europe about imminent rains had been shared with the authorities in Islamabad.

At least five days before intense monsoon rains triggered flooding in the north of the country, computer models at a weather forecasting centre based in the UK were strongly suggesting the torrential rainfall was imminent. Had that information been properly processed, claim researchers, it could even had forecast the extent of the floods themselves.

“This disaster could have been minimised and even the flooding could have been minimised,” said Peter Webster, a professor of earth and atmospheric science at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “If we were working with Pakistan, they would have known eight to 10 days in advance that the floods were coming.”

The claims by Dr Webster and his team come as Pakistan continues to grapple with the impact of the unprecedented flooding, which inundated a fifth of the country’s terrain and damaged 5.4m acres of arable land. Food shortages and malnutrition, homelessness and mental trauma are problems still affecting countless thousands of people. The UN recently warned malnutrition in some of the country’s southern areas now matched that in African countries that had suffered famine. Meanwhile, a recent study by Save the Children, found almost 90 per cent of children in affected areas were suffering from stress.

“The situation here is very bad. On one hand you have an agricultural system that was destroyed and we are not expecting any crops until May, and even then at a lower yield than normal,” said Khurram Khalid, of Save the Children. “There is also the problem from having had so many homes destroyed. They were mostly just mud and wood.”

Dr Webster and his team examined data from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF), which is based in Reading and involves 33 participating countries. In a paper to be published in a forthcoming scientific journal, the researchers said the data suggested there was sufficient information available to have confidently predicted the flooding. However, this information was not passed into the Pakistani authorities. The accuracy of forecasts by meteorologists in Pakistan was mixed.

A spokesman for the ECMWF, Manfred Kloeppel, confirmed the information regarding the imminent deluge had been available. “We verified our forecasts with the weather as it occurred and five to seven days [before] there was a clear indication of torrential rain in this area,” he said.

However Mr Kloeppel said the ECMWF, with which Pakistan is not associated, only provided numerical data which was passed on to meteorologists in its member states and did not make actual forecasts. He said the data was also available globally via the World Meteorological Organisation. (WMO). “It’s speculation but I don’t know whether this data was looked at or ignored. I don’t know. It was definitely available,” he said. No-one was available for comment last night from Pakistan’s Meteorological Department.

Mr Webster said he spent five years developing a flood-forecasting system for Bangladesh as part of an agreement with his university and the authorities in Dhaka. He said he is due to take part in a forthcoming meeting of developing nations in Bangkok where he hopes to build support for a similar warning system in Pakistan. He believes it could cost as little as $100,000 a year to run and hopes to persuade the World Bank to fund the project. He said that when floods struck several years ago in Bangladesh, his team was able to provide warnings that saved countless lives and millions of dollars.

“The worst thing about the floods in Pakistan, other than people losing their lives, is that they have lost everything. Now they are impoverished,” Mr Webster told The Independent. “To get people out of the way of floods you need five or six days. Actually preventing floods requires major investment in infrastructure in dams and barrages. But you can quite cheaply set up a flood warning system.”